Travels of Jaimie McPheetersIt was said to me so long ago that I really can’t remember who or when they said it – that being a writer is like drawing words from a cistern; you have to keep replenishing the store in the cistern by reading – and reading even more than you write. Was it Mr. Terranova, the whirlwind 6th grade teacher, or maybe the elderly gentleman who came to speak to a school assembly at Vineland Elementary when I was in about the 2nd or 3rd grade? He was blind, with a seeing-eye dog named Rosie whom he let off duty long enough for her to run down the center aisle in the auditorium for a good petting. Our teachers told us that he was an Enormously Famous Published Author – for some reason I thought for years that he was William Prescott, the author of The Conquest of Mexico and the Conquest of Peru, never mind that William Prescott would have been dead for a little over a hundred years by then. Yes – Mr. Terranova had us read excerpts of The Conquest of Mexico and Peru, which should give an idea of how eccentric and bloody brilliant he was as a teacher. The Enormously Famous Published Author with the seeing-eye dog named Rosie did give us one bit of authorly good advice, using ‘Jack and Jill went up the hill’ as his example; telling us to show them going up the hill, describe the hill, and why Jack and Jill did so, and what they saw and felt. Show, not tell, in other words. But enough of my early influences in writing, such as they were.

I have to limit myself when working on a book project; nothing by other fiction-scribblers working in the same area or time-period. This is because there is a danger for me of inadvertently taking an idea for a character, or an incident or accident of plot from someone else’s visualization, so at this time, all fictional accounts of Gold Rush-era California or the various trails and journeys towards the Ophir of the far west are strictly off the table. I have this totally bird-witted habit of seizing on certain things as I read about them, as if they were bright and shiny objects, and thinking, “Ah-ha! This has to be in The Book!” Other things just grab at me, and I come back to them again and again. In Adelsverein – to give just two small examples – it was the concept of the children, taken by Comanche Indians, who were returned, but never returned in spirit, and the massacre of the Texians at Goliad.

So, now I am faced with doing the episodic and picaresque Gold Rush adventure that I have always wanted to write. I grew up with this, because it was the event that I think made California what it was, for better or worse – and in the brief blink of an eye, as far as time goes. It was a sleepy agrarian backwater with a wonderful climate and spectacular scenery, a paradise to those who lived there at that time, a lost Eden to which they looked back on later with considerable nostalgia. And in the space of two or three years – the whole world piled in. The sleepy port of Yerba Buena became the muddy, lawless, brawling town of San Francisco, from hundreds of residents to thousands in mere months. The empty bay was suddenly forested with the masts of hundreds of abandoned ships. The properties of entrepreneur John Sutter were swamped with squatters, rogues and gold-seekers, the pristine rivers and streams in the foothills all alive with more men, looking for gold. Gold from the mines of California – and from just over the border in Nevada – kept the Union from going under entirely, so say some … and I have always wanted to write about it.

The next book, (after the bagatelle of Jim Reade and Toby Shaw, in the days of the Republic of Texas) will follow the adventures of Fredi Steinmetz, the younger brother of Magda Steinmetz-Becker, from the Trilogy. I’ve noted in other books that he went out to California as a cattle drover in the 1850s … and he returned, thinking not very much of the place, for a variety of reasons.

So, that’s why I am reading, and not writing and posting quite so much. I know the main character, one or two of the secondaries, and the rest will suggest themselves in time. The overall and relatively episodic plot will come out of what I am reading now; Maryat’s Mountains and Molehills, Dame Shirley Clappe’s Letters, Captain Gunnison’s history of the Mormons in Salt Lake City, Randolph Marcy’s 1859 advice to transcontinental travelers, William Manly’s account of his journey through Death Valley … and at least a score or more of others as they take my butterfly interest. Some of them are on my own bookshelves, some as eBooks or PDFs stashed away in my computer file … but shusssh … I am reading now.

Did you know that William Tecumseh Sherman and Edwin Booth were in California at the very time of the window for Fredi Steinmetz’ adventures there?

10. February 2012 · Comments Off on Committee of Vigilance – 1856 – Finale · Categories: Ain't That America?, History, Old West, World · Tags: , , ,

Three carriages entered the square, and as they halted before the jail door, the ranks of waiting men presented arms. Half a dozen men descended from the carriages – William Tell Coleman and the other leaders of the Committee. They talked for a few moments through the wicket-gate … and then they were admitted into the jail, to speak with Sheriff Scannell.
“We have come for the prisoner Casey,” Coleman told him. “We ask that he be peaceably delivered us, handcuffed at the door immediately.”
“Under existing circumstances,” replied Sheriff Scannell, “I shall make no resistance. The prison and it’s contents are yours.”
“We want only the man Casey at present,” One of the other Committee members added. “For the safety of all the rest, we hold you strictly accountable.”

Casey was taken to the Committee headquarters – later, Charles Cora was also added to the Committee’s bag. Three hundred men guarded Fort Gunnybags, another hundred the jail, while the rest were relieved for the moment. The next day, Vigilantes patrolled the streets, and warned merchants selling weapons not to sell any such … for now. James Casey and Charles Cora were allowed visitors. On Tuesday, Cora was brought before the Committee and informed that he would be tried for murder. All the forms of law would be observed, and he would be represented by a lawyer. Who was one of the Executive Committee … Cora provided a list of witnesses, who would testify in his defense, and they were all sent for; none could be found.

That evening, word arrived that James King of William had died. Sometime that evening, both Cora and Casey were convicted and sentenced.

Thursday at noon was the time set for King’s funeral to begin. The nearby Unitarian Church where it was to be held was jammed to overflowing by mid-morning, and the procession with the coffin was said to have been two miles long. Mourners stood in the streets to pay their respects … and in the street before the Vigilance Committee’s headquarters there were also men standing; men in three ranks, in the pose of attention as they had stood in the square before the county jail on Sunday morning.

Just before one o’clock, the tall windows on the second floor of the building were opened; from two of them, a pair of small wooden platforms were pushed out, and balanced on the edge of the window-sill. Above, from the flat roof of the building, a pair of heavy beams was set into place, just over the platforms; a noose of heavy rope dangled from the end of each beam. Then … silence again, although those who waited in the street below could hear the faint music of a church organ. The music seemed to be a cue of some kind. Charles Cora, his eyes covered by a white handkerchief blindfold was guided out of the window, to stand silently on the little platform. A few moments later, James Casey followed; he was not blindfolded at his request, but his nerve broke, looking down at the implacable faces below. He babbled, pleading that he was not a murderer, he had done nothing, he only responded to insult … the words fell into grim silence.

In that silence, the commotion at the door of the Unitarian Church could be heard clearly; James King’s coffin was being carried out by the pall-bearers. From the steeple above, the church bell tolled a single note. Another church bell joined, and then another and another, as those men in the street presented arms. The platforms beneath the Casey and Cora dropped … and justice as it had been declared by the Vigilantes was done.

Postscript: the Committee did not disband, immediately. They went on adding members, conducting military drill, and doing business – one item of which was the formation of a list. Those on it would either leave, or be charged and tried under the ordinary rules of law. Only two more miscreants were hanged, and thirty banished officially, although it was estimated that at least eight hundred left town voluntarily. The Committee formally dissolved in August of that year, with a grand parade and an open house of “Fort Gunnybags.”
Many years later, a curious visitor to the city asked, “What has become of your Vigilance Committee?” “Toll the bell, sir – and you will see!”